Give all kids a fighting chance

©John Y. Odom, Ph.D. and Joann Pritchett, R.N, Ph.D.

glovesMany would agree that child rearing or ‘raising a child’ is the most difficult job in the world. And the internet – where anything you do or don’t want to know, see or experience is within a few keystrokes – makes parenting much more challenging.

Educators, for the most part, expect children to have mastered the skills that are necessary for beginners (kindergarten/first grade) as well as for those who are continuing at the next grade level. But even before basic skills are mastered, there are some more basic needs that parents and the community should meet for all children, including basic habits and routines.

Consider the day-to-day challenges of teaching students who do not have the necessary age and/or grade appropriate skills and behaviors BEFORE there is any discussion of teaching children how to write, to think or to compute. Consider these challenges throughout the school year from preschool through high school graduation and beyond. Think about who wins and who loses. In addition to knowing their ABCs and 1,2,3s, “the village” must present students who are healthy, clean, punctual and well-behaved. Children who are clean, healthy and well-behaved have advantages that all children should share.

On the eve of a new school year with new possibilities for success, our purpose of this discussion is to challenge parents and the community to consider what it takes to give all of our children a fighting chance in school.

There are some basic practices that should all must address.

Clean and polished For a child or an adult, being dirty or unkempt carries with it social stigma. When most other children are clean, it is unfair for a child to be shunned and labeled ‘stinky’ or ‘smelly’; showing up for school with unwashed faces, clothes and bodies. There was a saying when we were kids in the South: “they might be ‘holey’ but they (sure are) clean.” It meant that your clothes, especially your underwear, might have holes in them, nonetheless, they were clean. Unlike today, washing clothes then often meant washing by hand; a washboard and drying clothes on a clothes line. Whatever it took then or now, the hassle was and is worth it. When Mother Theresa died, she only had 2 dresses. Each day she washed the one she had worn and wore the other the next day.

Physical Health A healthy child is better able to learn. Being physically healthy, well rested and well nourished are essential elements of learning readiness.

Immunizations There are few good reasons to put children at-risk by overlooking childhood immunizations. Scheduled immunizations and booster shots, if needed, against smallpox, rubella, measles, mumps, chickenpox or whooping cough are important basic steps a parent can take to protect and insure children’s current and future health.

Routine Pediatric Exams are a must for children who are beginning schooling as well as for those returning to school. Medical exams or checkups before beginning or returning to school should include hearing and vision screening as well as dental screening for tooth decay. For those children with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, food allergies or physical limitations that may require special attention at school, it becomes important that proper paperwork from the physician be provided to the school that informs and instructs school officials regarding medical condition(s) as well as any interventions, if necessary.

Nutrition. Normal growth and development of a child require proper nutrition. Children are constantly growing. At least three times a day their bodies and minds require wholesome, nutritious food, not counting snacks and excluding ‘junk food.’ For example, offering carrot sticks instead of a candy bar or chips goes a long way in helping the child to understand food value as well as adopting a well balanced diet at an early age. It’s hard for children to concentrate when their stomachs are louder than the teacher’s voice.>

Sleep. Getting enough sleep is critical to learning readiness from birth through adolescence. In most instances irritability, disruptive behavior, aggressiveness and an inability to follow instructions or attend to what is being said or taught can be attributed to not getting enough sleep. A tired child is more anxious, is easy to upset and gets frustrated with simple tasks. Instituting and adhering to strict bedtime hours insures that the child is ready for his or her school day.

Punctuality. A child who is often late is disadvantaged and disruptive for his or her classmates. It takes time to help a classroom of students to settle down and to prepare for school work. Taking time to manage scarves, mittens, coats and boots is costly when a few children arrive late. The children who arrived on time are deprived of some of the attention they earned. If school begins at 8:00 am, then a child who arrives at 8 am is late. The child who arrives at 7:50 am is also late if 10 minutes is not enough time for the child to put his or her things away: to get to the classroom; to get seated; to take out materials for the day; to settle down.

Emotional Adjustment. Children should have a good self image and a hopeful outlook on life. Unfortunately, many children suffer from the emotional issues that trouble adults – anger, moodiness, anxiety or depression. As a parent, consider the following questions as a guide to determine whether some or all of the questions relate to your child:
• Is your child generally disliked, aggressive and disruptive?
• Is your child unable to sustain close relationships with other children?
• Is your child usually in a positive mood, able to show empathy?
• Is your child able to express anger and frustration without building up to do harm to others?
• Does your child play fair, take turns, show interest in others or is named as a friend by other children?
It takes work to teach children how to process their emotions; how to be happy, hopeful with the necessary skills to take on challenges that are appropriate for each stage of their development.

Quiet Time. Children need peace and quiet in their lives. They need it for rest, for relaxation, for stress management, for homework and for sleep. Home should be a place of peace not an environment of abuse, noise, profanity, anger, cigarette smoke, illegal substances, loud music and conversations unsuited for children. Consider designating a quiet place and quiet times in your home for your child to do homework, to read or for some alone time.

Social Skills and Etiquette. Saying the magic words “Please” and “Thank you” or “Excuse Me,” covering up a cough, waiting one’s turn, raising one’s hand to be recognized, having an “inside voice”, playing well with others, sitting quietly when asked are just a few examples of developing age appropriate social skills.

There is no denying that many parents with school-age children are facing hard economic challenges. Some are homeless. And, there are many children who either have no parents in their lives or who have adults who don’t function well as parents – we get it. Much of what we call for can be taken for granted by most parents in our area, but they also represent huge challenges for growing numbers of parents. Nonetheless, all of these problems must be overcome to give all kids a fighting chance at success.

Some may ask: “What about racism, elitism and prejudice in the school system?” We agree that these problems exist and they are major, but these are not problems that children should try to address. This is work for concerned adults – especially those adults who are being paid to insure that children are not victimized by institutional or individual discrimination. Children should learn as much and as well as they can. Besides, if necessary to do so, discrimination is far easier to prove when the child and the parents have met their responsibilities.

Madison has more nonprofits than any other American city our size. We have thousands of wonderful volunteers and a strong faith-based community. Our organizations – government, public and private schools, institutions of higher education, businesses, religious institutions, nonprofits – and individuals must, at a minimum, focus on sending clean, healthy, punctual, well-adjusted, well-behaved, curious, literate and numerate children to school every day – to give kids a fighting chance at success. Doing so is a necessary beginning.

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